Bottomline | Fair Game

Merit alone should decide MMRCA, not political concerns

Pravin SawhneyPravin Sawhney

The 126 Medium-Multi-Role Combat Aircraft (M-MRCA) deal worth over US10 billion dollars, with an option for 50 per cent more numbers acquisition, should ideally get decided in 2010, for the signing ceremony in early 2011. This is what the Indian Air Force, which has pressed its case of dwindling force levels, wants. The flight evaluation trials of the six contenders are underway; by middle 2010, the IAF will submit its report to the defence ministry. The latter, after consideration of essential aspects like product support, maintainability, offsets obligation, technology transfer and so on will determine who gets the big cake.

Indications are that this exercise will not be a simple one; the air platform has acquired political stature and is threatening India’s relations with friendly powers, especially the old buddy Russia and the new friend United States. So, the defence ministry commenced early testing of waters by asking the Air Headquarters’ informal opinion on splitting the basket; let’s say 100 aircraft each from Russia and the US.Shocked at the query, the service gave the expected answer: operationally it is not a good idea, but it’s the government’s prerogative to settle the matter.

New Delhi should not take the easy way out. The M-MRCA ought to be decided on merit as the aircraft will remain in the IAF inventory for over three-and-half decades; if merit indicates choosing between Russia or the US, it should be an objective exercise rather than one influenced by mind-sets.

Russia is not Soviet Union as it is driven by pragmatic and not ideological considerations. It wants business, but shows disdain for business principles; the fundamental dictum is to give a customer what is promised, provide sound product support and abide by contractual obligations. On all counts, Russia has fallen woefully short of the desired. Cases in point are the Tunguska air defence system, where Russia tried to sell old systems to the Indian Army while charging for new ones; the Sea Dragon suite on the IL-38 aircraft, which remains imperfect; the delay in the agreed T-90S tank technology transfer and so on. The spares problem has been lingering on since decades without sign of diminishing. The procedure of dealing with the Russian OEMs through the highly bureaucratic Rosoboronexport is extremely cumbersome and self-defeating; if a query gets replied in six months, it is reduced to mockery. The Gorshkov episode is the glaring example of disregarding contractual obligation; we, at FORCE, have had our own taste of Russian cheating. A high-profile Russian advertisement agent for major defence OEMs, Yury Laskin (passport number 700130776), owner of Laguk company, owes FORCE US 12,550 dollars on written contract since a year, which he dishonestly reduced to US 5,228 dollars, and has not even paid that amount. I had personally met the President, United Aircraft Corporation, Alexey Fedorov and the then Russian ambassador in India, Vyacheslav I. Trubnikov; both agreed in the fairness of FORCE’s case, but nothing has since happened. The plugged-into-the-system Laskin will next be seen at DefExpo 2010 in New Delhi doing business as usual.

Undeniably, there is a comfort level with Russian equipment; it is rugged, caters for the lowest intelligence denominator, is not-so-expensive, and generations of Indian military have used it with pride, including me, who, when in the artillery, had thought that few guns matched the 130mm. I remember that the Soviets would decide what was best for us, and we would pick up the stuff without trials or bothering for product support. The equipment was sold at ‘friendly prices’ by the superpower that stood by us politically.

Today, Russian relations with India continue to be assessed nostalgically: the nod for the vintage nuclear submarine Arihant technology was given by the Soviet Union, it is doubtful if Russia will help in the more powerful indigenous nuclear-powered submarines and SLBMs programmes, the leasing of Akula submarine is so late that the navy does not really need it, it is certain that Moscow will not transfer enrichment and reprocessing technologies outside G-8 nations’ sanctions to India, nor defy the MTCR by allowing BrahMos to be converted into a strategic weapon. Russia will never give state-of-art-technologies to India; it is simply selling arms like it does to other nations including China. If Moscow does not sell weapons to Pakistan, it has less to do with India’s urgings, and more to do with not losing the huge captive Indian defence market. Instead of putting the condition of showing better product support to the equipment already with the Indian military, we hastily extended the military-technology cooperation with Russia by another 10 years (2011-2020); it could have waited a year.

With the US it is just the opposite. We presume that the US will never give us the state-of-art equipment and not transfer its technology, inspect equipment after it is sold to us, and blackmail us to do its political calling. We overlook the successful sale of C-130J aircraft, and the fact that the IAF is satisfied with the progress on its infrastructure development. It is high time we become fair and firm in our dealings with Russia and the US if we are to develop our indigenous defence industry.


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